Fluffy Thunder: A Tribute to Robert Heinlein
By Tom Trumpinski
The door dilated and Mannie Davis half-walked, half-flew down the ramp into the Stones' cubic in the motion characteristic of a Loonie in a hurry. He was twenty minutes late and he knew better than to keep a pregnant woman tapping her foot--especially one who had knocked off Warden's guardsmen without a second thought.
As he rounded the last corner before the living spaces, the ambush hit him. A half-dozen children--none older than eight--leapt from their hiding places in doorways and grabbed him. The largest, a lad with freckles reminiscent of a lunar sky, knocked Mannie's feet out from under him and the older man fell in slow-motion to the floor, covered with tickling, giggling brats.
Their ringleader, not even out of her teens, emerged from the nursery doorway, hands on hips--the round bulge of her pregnancy almost dwarfing her tiny frame. She stopped to survey her prisoner. "You're late," Hazel Meade Stone said. "Great Hero of Revolution still has no watch?"
"Lost it in game of chess."
"That will teach you to keep extra pawn in pocket. All right, my little soldiers, let him up, but keep eye on him--he thinks he's crafty."
"We captured him fair and square, Mama Hazel. Forfeit!" Pippin Stone, the freckle-faced boy said. "Let's keep him down 'til he promises to pay it."
"Right." "Yeah." "Forfeit," the other children echoed.
"All right, little ones--let me up and will tell story. You like stories, no?" Mannie lifted two of the children with his legs and sent them flying. They somersaulted, pushed off the corridor walls and landed back on him before he could struggle to his feet.
"Into playroom, now, kids. Let old man have chance to catch breath." Hazel was smiling from her eyes to her chin. Mannie lifted himself with a quick push of his arms and pulled his legs beneath him while still airborne. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him firmly on the lips. "Nice to see you, Man, thanks for offering to help watch littles tonight."
"Always pleasure--they're fast...and sneaky. Like."
"Good kids all." She threaded her arm through his and they followed the mob of children deeper into the nursery rooms. In the nap room, pillows were spread in a circle on the floor and each of the young Stones grabbed their favorite and waited, trying to repress wiggles. Hazel released Mannie, walked over to the 'wave, and soon the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the room. She cut off a slice apiece and covered each one with flavored soy-butter. The children gobbled down their treat and licked their fingers twice for good measure. The two adults took a bit longer, savoring the taste. Mannie aligned his chair to face the roomful of children and cleared his throat. Hazel handed him a bulb of water; he drank a squirt and began....
"Think this is before any of you were born--maybe not you, Pippin--for sure all others. Was working for Warden, of course, fixing computers. When not working there, doing chores on Davis farm. Like everyone else, then, grew wheat to ship to Earth.
Seventy-four was bad year. Our farm had it better than most, since had own water mine--didn't have to pay for air or water, recycled waste--solar collectors above made hydrogen and oxygen. Earth kept prices low, so had to pinch pennies 'til they screamed despite advantages.
Was repairing valve one day when senior husband, Greg, came up, palm out.
"Look at these, Mannie," he said.
"What? Burned wheat grains?" Took two from him, smashed down one with finger, and popped other in mouth to taste.
"No," he said, "I looked them up. Rat droppings."
Spit out dropping fast and sputtered for several minutes before getting water to wash taste from mouth. "Rats? No rats on Moon. No way, no how."
"Follow me," he said, and we marched down tunnels to greenhouse level. Greg pointed to newly unpacked container. In corner was nest of insulation and fur. "Shippers left enough air in the crates for the animals to make it here. No way to tell how many. I have found droppings all over this level. Even worse, they're in our walls, too."
This very bad. Rats take what they can find to build nests. If they eat wires, cause shorts in critical systems. Needed solution, fast.
So, next dinner time, asked for volunteers. Lots of Davis children to do rat-catching sweeps. Gave treats for largest daily kill. Even though littles worked hard, rats tough survivors. Can have new batch babies every three, four weeks, even if suckling last litter.
Tried for two months. End of time, still had rats and children needed for harvest. By time harvest over, more rats than to begin with. Was going to cost money.
In Bad Old Days, no pictures on 'Net. Bandwidth to Moon monitored by Warden--goods not from company store taxed heavily. Mum Mimi called up Sears & Roebuck catalog on screen and looked in Bio-ware section. Found "Self-Replicating Pest Control Devices" listed.
"What're those?" I said.
"Dunno," she replied. "No picture, description vague, it's guaranteed to destroy a thousand times its weight in rats during usable lifetime and dirt cheap. Even so, Mannie, it's a pig in a poke."
"It's Sears. Have guarantee. Just got money from catapult-head for wheat. Devices sold in fifty-kilo units. Can afford twenty? Could set up around perimeter of fields--put bait to lure rats to them."
"In my experience, darling boy," she said, "if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Let me calculate payoff time." She fiddled with electronic ledger, adding figure here, taking one away there. "Hmmm. Looks like one year break-even without considering the cost or danger of the little stinkers knocking out a critical system. Purchase approved."
Took one month for shipment to arrive at port. Clerks waiting in room off main corridor to charge family money for import duties. In those days, Warden took share of anything going in or out of Loonie-space. Paid duty, grumbled. Clerks cared as much as usual. Walked to rented storage unit with Seamus and Micah, hired hands.
Two sealed containers--marked "Sears and Roebuck, Chicago, Earth" and "Fragile, Cryogenic Unit"--sat in small room with big door. They were much, much larger than expected--too big to fit on corridor-tractor we had brought. Was figuring on nanotech, not bulk items.
Micah examined controls. "Can we open these, boss?"
"Should inspect. Off-switch here. Will have to unpack anyway, too big to move like this." Pressed Off-switch, container split down middle and sides folded down. Backed up, since opened crate took up half space in room. Was facing other way, watching entry door for snoops when it finished unfolding and hired men gasped.
Turned to look and gasped, also. There, lying within, lay row upon row of identical, cloned, frozen, five-kilo grey cats.
"They're cats, boss," Micah said.
"Yep, looks like cats, all right," Seamus added. "All female, too."
Asked them, "Can we close container again?" Needed to think deep. Cats would eat rats, but needed other food and water...and air. Had vision of break-even date moving further and further into future. Mimi would bounce off ceiling like rocket fired indoors. Sears only replaced broken or missing equipment, not items working as described. "How much liquid nitrogen left in container tanks?"
"Seventy hours, more or less."
Opened other container. That one filled with one hundred shorthaired, striped, orange tomcats sleeping soundly at 72 K. Two hundred cats total. Containers won't fit on tractor. Cats wake up--will have to pay air tax for entire lot. Closed containers again. Head hurt, bad. Locked storage unit, gave clerks cash for four more days rental.
"So, let me get this straight, Mannie," Mimi was demonstrating ability to act angry and suppress laughter at same time, "Davis Farms now owns two hundred shorthaired cats--Self-Replicating Pest Control Devices." She choked once trying to keep straight face. "They are five kilometers from the farm, frozen, and we have no equipment to haul their containers here. As soon as they wake up, we owe air tax as long as they're not in our cubic."
"So, need to minimize time outside our space."
"Our first problem, then, is getting them here--awake or not. Can we rent a larger hauler? Maybe move them over the surface and bring them in through our overhead lock?"
"Nyet. No hauler large enough to move containers--won't fit through smaller corridors on way here. Overhead lock too small to bring containers through. Can't open outside--vacuum kills even frozen cats."
Mimi started chuckling. "My darling Manuel, you know those Western discs of mine we used to watch when we were first married?"
"When not too tired, dear." Kissed wife nicely, remembering honeymoon. "Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Mal Reynolds, wild Indians, buffalo--remember well. Land looked like Moon except blue sky. Why?"
"Ranchers had problem like ours--had animals at end of railhead, but no fueled transport except what would roll on tracks. They solved their problem by driving the stock to where they needed to go." Mimi looked serious again.
"More like 'kittle' drive in our case."
"Chief Alvarez would go ballistic. Are two hundred of them! Cats will go everywhere--fur in air filters, beasts running into open shops. You're talking about five kilometers of corridor--one of them through heart of Luna City."
"Sweet Mannie, when have we ever seen the need to tell the Chief anything? We brush cats first, while defrosting--collect their fur and put it in a bag. We can do the drive between 0200 and 0500 when all the shops are closed--nobody in the corridors then except for drunks and cops. We use whole family plus hands to herd the cats--find some way to make distraction to keep cops busy across town."
"All we have to do is keep cats moving in right direction, no?" Had some doubts about plan.
"Sure, how hard could it possibly be to get cats to move? Just point them in one direction and urge them on--they're just like any other herd animal, right?"
Unpacked cats day early. Both hired hands and five children with curry-brushes used for dwarf calves went ahead to storage unit. Three hours later, arrived with Greg to supervise help, feed and water herd.
Entered door. Room so noisy cannot hear oneself think. Cats sitting, lying, standing everywhere--atop containers, on twelve-centimeter shelves halfway up bulkheads, in corners, underfoot. Loose fur drifting up toward ceiling circulation intake. One bag completely full of loose fur, second one halfway filled.
Micah yanked at orange tomcat attached to his shirt. Remained attached by its feet. Made mental note--cats' feet sharp. "Boss, we've lost track of the ones we've brushed."
"They all alike?"
"Each batch of ten seems to be the clone of one specific parent. Can't tell one of those from the rest at all. Within each sex, colors are similar enough between batches that when they get mixed up, may as well give up trying to separate them."
"You thawed them all at once? No way to defrost few at one time?"
"One switch, boss," Seamus said. "We hit it, started working on brushing the cats and the next thing we know, they're all awake and yowling."
"They're probably hungry," Greg said. He walked back to tractor in corridor and returned with sack of protein over one shoulder and water jerrycan and bowls in other hand. Cats got very quiet all of sudden. Started sniffing air. Two or three dozen fell into crouch so low bellies almost touched floor and lifted rear ends--waving tails back and forth.
"What are they doing?" Greg asked. "Is that some sort of threat display? Ahhhh!" Husband's words cut off as cats flew across room, landing atop sack of food, tearing at it.
Luna reduces weight, not mass, of course. One hundred fifty kilos of felines flying at kilometer per minute pack punch like prizefighter. Greg fell backwards, landing with no harm but to dignity, thank Bog, becoming invisible under carpet of furry creatures having first meal in some time. Rest of grownups moved out of line of fire of next wave of incoming cats while making wager on whether Preacher Greg knew cuss words.
Lost wager. Learned some previously unknown to me.
Once cats fed and watered, entire herd fell asleep except for few who were mating or fighting--hard to tell which without further study. Yowls made head hurt again. Eight of us stepped lightly over curled balls of fluff and met at closed containers. Leaned on container, then jumped when sleepy queen laid paws over shoulder and made rumbling noise in ear, nibbling gently.
"Tickles!" All five children giggled at me. Three of them stroking cats held in arms--another one had fur collar, last had orange tom draped over shoulder, striped head staring in my direction.
"They're soft," the eldest said.
"Yeah," the collared one added.
"That's purring they're doing--I looked it up. They make a noise with their throat when they're happy." Elise looked like old video of Mimi pre-transport.
"So, honey," I said to her, "did article say anything about how to herd them?"
"No, Poppa Mannie, nothing at all. Why don't you shout and wave your arms? That works for cows, after all."
Walked to end of storage room. Yelled, "Giddyap!" and "Wahoo!" and "Move Out!" Four nearby cats opened eyes, stood up, stretched, lay back down. Rest of cats continued sleeping. Hopped up and down and waved arms to scare cats into action. Cats remained asleep. Motioned for hired men and children to do same. Two cats woke up, walked over to water dish, lapped expensive liquid until satisfied. Other one hundred and ninety-eight remained asleep.
Said to group, "May have to rethink this idea."
Returned to Davis farm, nineteen hours left of storage rental time. Sent Mimi and Greg off to carry out other portions of plan while giving thought to motivating herd. Remembered yowling of cats and annoyance from such. Turnabout fair play, no?
Large Heathkit box on shelf in room. Brought it down, savoring smell of resistors and capacitors tipped with solder. All parts needed already there--built oscillator circuit, added speakers, attached dial to adjust frequency. Doubled human hearing range in both directions, in case needed. Slipped everything into box with belt strap, clipped to tool belt, headed back to rental unit on tractor.
Slipped inside quietly, turned on lights. Most cats asleep, few fighting or mating, several came forward purring, looking for food and attention. Turned on speaker-box. As usual, cats continued sleeping. Gradually raised frequency to higher pitch. More and more cats woke up, staring in direction of speaker. Pitch approached edge of hearing. Cats all awake now. Turned dial little further--fur stands up on backs of cats. Small adjustment and entire herd stands and runs to back to storage space. Some climb to shelf on wall. Design which works--amazing. Returned home, slept ten hours.
At 0130, Micah and Seamus returned with me to rental unit. Hauled cryogenic containers to clerks' office--sold back to Authority. Shoveled manure into bags for recycling. 0145, called Mimi and Greg to confirm others in place. Operation Trail Drive now "Go."
Across Luna City, at the Vacuum Head Tavern--favorite hangout of tunnel rats from first and second shifts--Big Mike Bogdanovich, foreman of first shift, takes swing at Ivan "Crazy Legs" Chang, foreman of second, at precisely 0147. Since miners love brawls more than anything besides drinking, rest of patrons join in melee. Owner calls Alvarez's Guards and Finks at 0149. By 0155, every law official in Luna City heading orthogonally from Port and Davis Farm to break up riot. At 0156, Mimi adding cost of gift to Miners' Union Hall to balance sheet of electronic ledger. Exactly 0200, open sliding door to rental until and cats run away from speaker-unit on belt fast as possible.
Herd thunders down corridor, mewling and howling. Front line of cats half-jump, half-fly, up and down ramps. Adventurous toms hug walls, looking for creative escape routes. Three hundred meters down, reach first cross-corridor. Most of herd continues forward, some toms rush to side, leading those behind them in that direction. Met by Agosti Azariah Alvarez and Spirit of Bilbao jai alai team.
Team fastest on Luna. Use scoops on sticks to toss straying leaders back to center of herd. Cats land on feet, run forward. Team jumps on 'cycles, races ahead to next corridor using side tunnels, meets cats there. Back home, Mimi writing check to fix plumbing in Spirit of Bilbao's Clubhouse.
One hour later, dial open door to Davis cubic. Herd runs inside, spreads out into farming tunnels. Everyone stares at floating fur in corridor, shake hands, pat on back, and go home.
Placed feeding stations at strategic areas around cubic. Next rat seen only half-rat--brought to edge of growing area and offered as tribute to Davis Family. Cats became popular quickly--smart, self-reliant, dexterous, clean, just like human Loonies. Soon learn interior doors dilate for more than five cats clawing at door. Had to put interlock on critical areas. Tribes of cats settle own areas with neutral space in-between. Peace reigns, waste recycled, purring heard in bedrooms during sleep cycles.
Exactly 87 days later, was standing next to wheat when tiny, mottled ball of fur flew out of hiding and landed on shoulder, biting ear. Looking down, saw three more pairs of blue eyes staring back between sheaves. Over next week, reports of kittens from all over farm. Females apparently fertile--called Family meeting.
"Mannie, darling, the advertisement said 'Self-replicating'--of course they're fertile," Mimi said over suppertime meal. Three tortoiseshell kittens played in her lap, rolling and nibbling each other. Largest put feet on table, looking over plates of food. Mum brushed her back down without glance. "There's still some areas to which we can extent their hunting grounds. Food for them is not a problem as long as there are pests to kill."
"It's their fecundity that is liable to be the problem. If they have more than one batch per year, we'll soon be overrun with them." Greg petted orange-striped kitten sitting on shoulder, offering bit of protein to it from spoon. "You were going to do some research on their mating habits, weren't you?"
Did not have cat on lap. Problem too serious. Was frightened by numbers. "Bought one hundred females. Each female capable of producing three to five kittens three times each year. Let's say 90% breeding efficiency and 75% of kittens grow to adulthood. This time next year, have one thousand cats, not two hundred. Takes only year for female kittens to become fertile themselves. End of ten years, each female has produced 150 kittens. By that time, nine factoral times 400 cats fill Davis cubic to ceiling."
"Kittens? Did someone say kittens?" Grandpaw Davis woke up from usual doze at end of table. White kitten with gray spots lay over his bald head, washing remaining strands of hair. "We had kittens in the barn when I was a young'un. When we had too many of them, it warn't no problem--we just put 'em in a sack and dropped 'em in the creek."
"Ewwwwwww." Everyone at table flinched at same time, thinking about cute kittens sucked into vacuum.
"No, we can't do that, Husband-mine. We'll figure out some way to solve the problem that doesn't involve mayhem." Mimi looked thoughtful. "Mannie, Greg, have the children go out collecting the cutest ones they can find...."
Next day handbills appeared all over Luna City with photo of big-eyed kitten with "HAVE YOU SEEN ME?" written underneath. Sentimental Loonies' heads exploded with cuteness. Week later, even cuter ones adorned bulletin boards saying, "AVAILABLE IN ONLY THREE WEEKS."
By time kittens were old enough to wean, long line of buyers stretched clear back to downtown. Vet who doctored Davis cows and pigs offered to sterilize 90% of our females and all kittens in exchange for three pairs of her own. Neutering insured steady stream of new kittens without being so many that they exceeded farm's budget.
In six months, cats new symbol of social status. Warden had matched pair of tomcats sleeping on bed between girls. Knew things had changed forever when gray queen was knocking peanuts off bar at favorite tavern and drinking beer out of customers' glasses. Life went on, made more pleasant by Luna's newest residents.
And that, children, is how cats came to live on Luna and Family opened Davis Farms' Pet Emporium and Supply. You know their motto, right? Repeat after me:
THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS FREE...."
"KITTENS!!!" the children all yelled together.
As the littles lay curled up in the crèche sleeping, each with a purring cat of their own, Hazel walked Manuel back to the main corridor. "Thanks so much for coming over and visiting the children. They adore you, you know."
"Love them, Haze. They're hope of future, now that Luna's free. Important lesson, too, in story--how to solve problems and turn profit. You could do worse than to pay attention to this yourself."
"Will keep this in mind, Mannie--but really, now. Why would I ever need to know how to sell off hundreds of little furry creatures? Not exactly survival skill, is it?"